1936 All-American Soap Box Derby, The
"The great American boy is hard at work...inventing, creating, building something. The energy that is forever behind both the competitive sports of youth and the desire to build and create new things is the energy that develops industrious, dependable citizens of tomorrow."
Producer Handy (Jam) OrganizationSponsor General Motors CorporationAudio/Visual sound, color
One of the greatest public relations stunts ever created in this country, the All-American Soap Box Derby combines spectacle, technology, and masculinity. These three themes are well expressed in this film, apparently the second annual Derby film sponsored by General Motors.
Youth has always been a difficult time, but the Depression years were particularly tough on teenagers. Economic pressure weighed heavily on many teens, especially those sufficiently mature to hold down jobs and contribute to the support of their families but unable to do so because of high unemployment. Many youths took to the road, seeking release from untenable situations at home. A widespread uncertainty and malaise filled the younger generation. Chevrolet sponsored at least four films (the others were An Engineering Widow , One Thousand Hours  and Test Tube Tale) in an attempt to increase younger people's commitment and attention, and to promote engineering and technical careers as essential, interesting, and most of all achievable.
Chevrolet also sought to capture young people's allegiance and direct it towards the free enterprise system. Company official C.P. Fisken said in Chevrolet advertisements: "It's the Soap Box Derby against the soap-box orators. How can you have soap-box orators when thousands and thousands of boys are looking for soap boxes?" Paul Garrett, Chevy's public relations director, said in 1936: "Since 1929 nearly 17 million young people have come of age. What do they think of the ability of industry to provide for their future?...What is going to be their verdict in the current conflict between individualism and the corporate state? If you are interested in the part youth is playing in the modern world, study the records of the dictators of Europe. Each move is built around a proposal to give youth a place in the sun." Chevrolet sponsored scholarship awards for winners until 1972, when it switched its emphasis to other events like the Junior Olympics and America's Junior Miss Pageant.
Although this film celebrates many aspects of the "great American boy," the boys it shows are ultimately judged by their technological prowess. It begins with images of boys shooting marbles, racing, jumping, playing football and wrestling -- in short, engaged in fair and spirited masculine competition. Quickly, though, the image of boy as inventor takes over: builder of model airplanes, architect of treehouses, designer of go-karts. (Naturally, American boys gravitate towards transportation-oriented projects.) The film establishes a composite, ideal American boy: a basement tinkerer and hobbyist destined to enter a laboratory or become an engineer or inventor. This has been a common (and almost exclusively male) theme in advertising and corporate promotion. And in the accelerated age of the 1990s, the lifecycle has become compressed: many teenagers are earning big bucks programming or designing Web sites.
The first Soap Box Derbies were held in 1933 in Dayton, Ohio, and the event became official the next year. In 1935, the race moved to Akron, and by the time this film was made, it was being run on a new course built as part of a WPA project. The course is 953.9 feet long, and the current speed record is Tommy Fisher's: 26.30 seconds.
We learn how preparation for the Soap Box Derby demands a fanatical concern for detail. The rules are complicated and precise, and such factors as weight, wind resistance and lubrication are critical. But there's no anxiety about technology here — everything has a good Midwestern homespun roll-up-your-sleeves elbow-grease feel. A cadre of budding engineers makes it to Akron and the remainder of the film shows the race and awards ceremony. The final closeups of serious-looking boys show their faces superimposed over an American flag. When, and to what end, would their energy and technological expertise be called on?